Spice Wars Study Guide


“He who controls the spice controls the universe.” 

— Frank Herbert, Dune (1965)

It came to me in a flash last summer

Why the United States of America had spent the past two decades trying to control Afghanistan. 

Why Big Pharma was pushing the vaccines. 

It was the spice. The opium of the poppy fields. The opioids of Big Pharma. 

Everything was about controlling the spice.

And always had been.

Once upon a time, there was a Silk Road. You’ve heard of it I’m sure. The caravan road across the middle of the great Eurasian continent, linking the treasures of the Orient with the markets of the West. 

Except throughout the Middle Ages, the markets in the West weren’t much to speak of. A few Italian city-states. A few burghers in the north. Back in high school, I did a presentation about the fairs where they sold their spices. I even wore a costume—a hat that I got at the Renaissance Faire north of Houston, the autumn before I started college there. I had a basket full of spices and a head full of dreams, much as the spice merchants themselves must have had to set off across the Eurasian steppe in search of the lands of cinnamon, sugar, and cloves.

Most of them never got there, not if they were Christian. Not, that is, except during a single century, when thanks to the Mongols the Silk Road was open to them so that they could cut round the Muslim middlemen. You’ve heard of the Mongols, right? Blood-thirsty steppe warriors who drank the milk of mares and put Baghdad to the sword. For a brief moment in the history of Christendom, the Mongols were the Great Hope of the West, once they stopped cutting off ears. Perhaps they might convert to Christianity! Perhaps they would help the Christians against the Mamluks and Turks!

The Venetian merchants Marco Polo and his father and uncle spent the latter decades of the thirteenth century traveling in China, serving the Great Mongol Khan. “In Xanadu did Kublai Khan / a stately pleasure dome decree,” or so the poet Coleridge wrote, waking from an opium dream after reading about the Polos’ travels in Purchase his Pilgrimes by Samuel Purchas (1614). (You can read it now, too—it’s out there on the internet, if you know where to look.) 

The Great Khan Kubilai had a great court, but zero intention of converting to Christianity. He did, however, willingly employ foreigners like the Polos as agents, or so it seems from the account of his travels young Marco wrote with the help of Rustichello, the romancer, while the two of them were locked up in a Pisan prison. (It’s complicated.) Everyone who was anyone read The Travels, particularly after the Black Death closed the trade routes (1348) and the Ming threw the Mongols out (1368). 

Did I explain why everyone wanted spice? Spice was drugs—literally, drogas, “dried goods.” Spices were the drugs that balanced the humors (you know what that means if you have ever tried Ayurveda). Spices were pepper and ginger and saffron and mummy and myrrh. Spices were medicines, incense, perfumes, and marvels. Spices came from the rivers of paradise to season food and make merchants wealthy. They were the stuff of fairy tale and treasure, worth traveling the world. 

Spices were the reason Columbus wanted to convince somebody to sponsor his expedition across the Atlantic. 

Spices were the reason Columbus sailed West.

Of course, Columbus never found the route to China or the court of the Great Khan. But he helped the Spanish find something even better: new drugs, like chocolate and vanilla, brazil wood and cocaine. (They had coffee already, it comes from Ethiopia. And opium—it grows indigenously in Europe, oddly enough.)

And suddenly, thanks also to the Portuguese, nobody cared about the Silk Road anymore. They cared about the sea.

Because he who controls the spice controls the world.

Do you want to know why the United States of America has (or had) the power that it does? Look to the sea. 

I know, I know. Most Americans never travel, most don’t even have a passport. But the United States of America was originally colonies of the English and Dutch (you forgot that New York was founded by the Dutch? ever wonder why?), distant outposts of their great maritime empires. 

You’ve seen Pirates of the Caribbean? Remember the British East India Company (EIC), for reasons unexplained in the movies operating in the West Indies? Well, sometimes myth is closer to the truth than you’d think. Back in the day, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) controlled the equivalent of more of the world’s wealth than the top twenty companies in the world today.

That’s how important spices are. 

And then the Dutch traded Manhattan to the English for control of a nutmeg island. After that William of Orange (also Dutch) became king of England (1688). And after that, the British got control of the sea. (It’s complicated, but not really. See Pirates. Add sugar. And slaves.)

That tea that the colonists threw into Boston Harbor mattered. A lot.

This is the kind of thing I was thinking about last summer, watching the imperial withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan and reading George Herbert’s Dune

The spice. It was all about the spice that enables the ships to sail. In Dune, the spice gives the Guild navigators the power to guide the ships through the ocean of space. In real life, spice powered the British in their control of the waves.

Sugar and spice and everything nice. That is what empires are made of.

Britannia ruled the waves absolutely for a hundred years after the defeat of Napolean off Egypt, but it had been building its imperial fleet for centuries before that. A direct ancestor of mine helped Queen Elizabeth I defeat the Spanish Armada. She gave him and his cousin Sir Francis Drake letters of marque, meaning, licensed them as pirates to prey on the Spanish. Which they did.

I don’t carry his name because eventually the line ran out of sons and the daughters married into the colonies in Virginia. But my grandfathers both served the empire in World War II, one as a physician, the other as a mechanic; the latter (the Drake-kin) went on to become a two-star general in the Air Force, by which time, of course, the seas were under the control not of Britannia, but of the U.S.

So much makes sense if you realize we have been trying to gain control of the spice. The endless foreign wars in which the U.S. has embroiled itself since World War II. The growth of the power of Big Pharma over our culture. The drug cartels and the migrants and the border wars.

All about spice.

All about controlling the seas.

So why Afghanistan? Poppy fields, sure. But look at the maps.

Most of the world’s commerce travels by sea. Some 90%, according to figures cited by my fellow blogger over on Contemplations of the Tree of Woe

But what if the Silk Road were to become a thing again? What if the route to the spices no longer depended on the sea?

That is what China’s Belt-and-Road Intiative is. The counter to the maritime empires of the West. It is the new Silk Road, the path across Eurasia to cut out the maritime middlemen. 

It is China’s revenge on the West for the Opium Wars. 

You say the world no longer runs on spice? But it does. We just call it “fossil fuels” now. And they still come from the same place the spices did. 


Watch this space. The Dragon is rising. #DracoAlchemicus #RainbowTime


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